You know those legal highs that the government is about to ban en masse because they kill two people per week? They don't kill two people per week, or anything close.
Wednesday's Queen's speech, the first airing of a fully Tory parliamentary programme since 1996, included an unprecedented blanket ban on selling new psychoactive substances.
The announcement was met with various responses. Most importantly, a briefly-amusing Vine of the Queen set to an Avicii 2011 Trance Energy lightshow drop. But also warnings that the ban turns centuries of British legal tradition on its head, and plenty of Twitter users saying that the 97 deaths from legal highs in 2012 pales in comparison to the thousands of deaths linked to booze.
But for anyone with even a fleeting interest in the issue, the pertinent response should have been: Why is everyone in this story about banning legal highs talking about 97 deaths, when that figure is largely composed of drugs that were not legal at the time people died from taking them?
The dramatic "97 deaths" figure has travelled well, being quoted by the BBC, the Press Association and the Daily Mail, among others. While yesterday was bad news for the guys selling Bob Marley weed grinders and "Adihash" T-shirts, it was very good news for a right-wing think tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith called the Centre for Social Justice, or CSJ.
The CSJ has a strong evangelical Christian bent and is extremely influential in the Tory party. They have been pushing for a blanket ban for a while, so for them yesterday's news was a major victory. The think tank's lead man on legal highs, Rupert Oldham-Reid, hailed the proposed law in an article for Conservative Home, quoting everyone's favourite figure for legal high deaths, or something close to it. "Most tragically, in the last Parliament, the number of deaths associated with 'legal highs' has gone from one per month to over two per week," he wrote. He pushed the same line on Channel 5 News. The influence of the CSJ was also seen in a BBC piece published earlier this week, which declared: "Research from the Centre for Social Justice showed that there were 97 recorded deaths from legal highs in the UK in 2012."
Except there obviously weren't.
That "research" wasn't really research at all, but the very misleading use of an official figure. It stems from a landmark CSJ report in August, which noted that the government's official audit of drugs deaths, conducted by St George's, University of London, had found 97 deaths in 2012 in the UK in which "novel psychoactive substances" (referred to as NPS) played some part.
NPS is a very wide and highly disputed category of new and resurgent substances. The important thing to know for the purpose of understanding this week's events is that many of them aren't "legal highs" at all – in fact, many of them have been banned in the UK, some for decades.
Conflating NPS with legal highs, the CSJ report conducted a back-of-the-envelope projection – based on the rise in deaths from 12 in 2009 to 97 in 2012 – that should have rung major alarm bells. "Legal highs are entering the market and causing harm far quicker than our enforcement and regulation systems can adjust," it stated, "based on trend we predict they may be linked to more deaths than heroin by 2016."
Heroin is regularly implicated in more than 400 UK deaths each year. The CSJ's forecast, and its almost unbelievable conflation of the NPS category with legal highs, should have raised serious questions about its suitability to inform the debate. Instead, the "more deaths than heroin" headline was splashed over the 'papers and its proposal of a blanket ban is set to become UK law.
So famous has the 97 figure become that it makes sense to fully explain it. It is a tally of deaths in which a substance in the NPS group was been found in post-mortem toxicology reports by coroners in 2012. The faux-ecstasy drugs PMA or PMMA were involved in 23 of the deaths: both have been illegal since the 70s. Mephedrone – and other cathinone derivatives like 4-Mec, Flephedrone, Methylone – are linked to 37 of the deaths: they have all been banned since 2010.
Those are the big killers – all illegal in the relevant year, and therefore irrelevant to an estimation of the dangers of legal highs.
The Ketamine-like mexxy (linked to six deaths) was banned from March 2012. The tranquilliser phenazepam, used medicinally abroad and linked to 14 of the deaths, was banned in mid-2012.
As far as I can see, the only actual legal highs on the list linked to more than a handful of deaths are the Benzofurans (known as "Benzo Fury"), like APB and 6-APBl, which were collectively linked to nine deaths and have since been banned.
So the figure pushed right to the centre of the national conversation by the CSJ think tank – the one used to show that legal highs are a major new killer and require a blanket ban – is, in fact, largely based on deaths linked to highs that weren't legal at all.
Of those 97 deaths in 2012, the number judged by coroners to be definitively and directly caused by NPS was 68 – a figure which, for the same reasons, has little to do with legal highs, as a letter in the Lancet last year pointed out. This letter was co-authored by the government's former chief drug advisor Professor David Nutt. Since his sacking in 2009, Nutt has become a vocal critic of non-evidence-based drugs policy. When I called him last night to ask him what he made of the re-emergence of the 97 deaths figure, and the sweeping new ban, he said it represented an insult to science.
"It is outrageous that they continue to ignore the data," he said. "To base policy on second-hand reporting of flawed data is very worrying." He confirmed that he has pointed out to the CSJ that it is grossly misleading to quote MPS figures when talking about the dangers of legal highs. "They know exactly this. We should expose them as not telling the truth."
How many deaths does he think actually resulted from taking legal highs in 2012? "Less than ten. Maybe none."
When I contacted the CSJ to get their take, Oldham-Reid sent me a link to 2013 figures from Scotland, which again mainly relate to drugs that were already banned. After that message, and just like the last time I asked the CSJ questions about their research, the emails abruptly stopped.
Instead of answering my questions about the CSJ's use of the 97 deaths figure, Oldham-Reid had instructed me to ask the people who compiled it. So I did. A spokesman for St George's confirmed that the figure Oldham-Reid and the CSJ have repeatedly used as a legal highs deaths figure is no such thing: "the much quoted figure involved not only psychoactive substances that were legal at the time of publication, but also those that were already controlled."
Once more, as drug reform takes place all over the world, Britain's drug policy is still being dictated by right-wing scaremongers armed with disinformation, bad science and shonky statistics.
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